Not terrorism: the problem of definitions

One of my responsibilities as a PhD student is to develop a specialization, which simply means that over the course of a few months, I must acquire (limited) expertise in a particular research area unrelated to my dissertation. I have chosen religious terrorism as my general area of study, but I will be focusing on Jihadi-Salafism or the Global Salafi Jihad movement. My starting point is to develop an appreciation for the varied ways scholars use the term terrorism. Since I am already immersed in the literature I am beginning to notice certain patterns. For example, many authors begin their discussion of terrorism by mentioning how it is a contested concept, that a consensus has not been reached on what exactly terrorism is, and that we are not likely to develop a universally satisfactory definition of terrorism in the future. After a while, scholars’ attempts to modify or limit terrorism and remind us of its politically charged history becomes rather tedious, and I often find myself skipping the introductions of papers as soon as I see something like “Attempts to develop an operative definition of terrorism have been challenging”; “The definition of terrorism at the moment is too narrow [or too broad]”; or “Do we need to reevaluate the accepted [or contested] definition of terrorism?” Putting aside my fatigue from reading stock sentences in scholarly books and articles, and contrary to Glenn Greenwald’s arguments, I’m surprised by how much agreement there is among scholars about how to define terrorism.

In a moment I will provide some fairly standard definitions of terrorism, but before I get to that I want to briefly draw your attention to how non-academics (at least as far as terrorism scholarship is concerned) tend to view terrorism, or, at the very least, how they distinguish terrorism from other forms of warfare and from other forms of criminal violence. I’m going to focus on the Woolwich attack.

Source: drive-by planet

Labeling the Woolwich incident terrorism’ says most about a political agenda. It is misleading to describe it as terrorism. Terrorism invariably involves the deliberate targeting of civilians. Rigby wasn’t a civilian. He was a soldier. Some might argue that he was in civvies and walking on a London street, not in Helmand in a military uniform.

Source: policymic

While the attack bears many of the hallmarks of a terrorist attack, and may turn out to have been perpetrated by individuals with links to terrorist organisations, it was not an act of terrorism because drummer Rigby was a soldier. He was purposefully targeted because he was a soldier. What Greenwald fails to highlight, however, is that if the attack was indeed a case of conflict between combatants, it was a war crime.

Source: yorkvision

These two killers do not represent Islam – extremists like these are as much a representation of what it is to be a Muslim as the EDL are of what it is to be English. By calling this terrorism all we are doing is strengthening already wholly inaccurate beliefs about the Islamic faith which are held by a horribly large portion of this country….

For if this is terrorism, so is the killing of over a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians by the Western world and its armies and so, certainly, is the EDL attempting to burn down mosques in ‘revenge’ for Rigby’s death on Wednesday night.

Source: newreligion

The despicable actions carried out by Olumide Adebolajo yesterday were a demonstration of idiocy and narcissism rather than religion. The western media’s readiness to attribute these actions to Islam left many people feeling threatened by ‘Islamic’ extremism. Rather, maniacs use Islam as an excuse for their own violence and aggression and receive 24 hour news coverage in return. The reports seldom notify us that Islam widely condemns violence; as the Quran, Islam’s holiest scripture, says: “Whosoever killed a person – unless it be for killing a person or for creating disorder in the land – it shall be as if he killed all mankind and whoso saved a life, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.” (Quran 5:32)

I haven’t done an exhaustive analysis of the responses to the Woolwich attack, but these comments seem fairly representative of an increasingly common attempt to challenge terrorism narratives, whether they are coming from the media or government(s). Contrast these responses with some definitions of terrorism in the academic literature.

Source: Enders, W., & Sandler, T. (2011). The political economy of terrorism. Cambridge University Press.

Two essential ingredients characterize any modern definition of terrorism: the presence or threat of violence and political/social motive. Without violence or its threat, terrorists cannot get a political decision maker to respond to their demands. Moreover, in the absence of a political/social motive, a violent act is a crime rather than an act of terrorism. Terrorists broaden their audience beyond their immediate victim by making their actions appear to be random, so that everyone feels anxiety. In contrast to a drive-by shooting on a city street, terrorist acts are not random but well planned and often well-executed attacks where terrorists account for risks and associated costs, as well as possible gains.

Source: Schmid, A. P. (2013). 6 The response problem as a definition problem.Terrorism Studies: A Reader, 91.

Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby – in contrast to assassination – the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organisation), (imperilled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, correction, or propaganda is primarily sought.

Source: Schmid, A. P. (2012). The Revised Academic Consensus Definition of Terrorism. Perspectives on Terrorism, 6(2).

The main direct victims of terrorist attacks are in general not any armed forces but are usually civilians, non-combatants or other innocent and defenceless persons who bear no direct responsibility for the conflict that gave rise to acts of terrorism…. The direct victims are not the ultimate target (as in a classical assassination where victim and target coincide) but serve as message generators, more or less unwittingly helped by the news values of the mass media, to reach various audiences and conflict parties that identify either with the victims’ plight or the terrorists’ professed cause…. While showing similarities with methods employed by organized crime as well as those found in war crimes, terrorist violence is predominantly political – usually in its motivation but nearly always in its societal repercussions

Source: Sinai, J. (2010). How to define terrorism. Perspectives on Terrorism, 2(4).

Terrorism is a tactic of warfare involving premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated by subnational groups or clandestine agents against any citizen of a state, whether civilian or military, to influence, coerce, and, if possible, cause mass casualties and physical destruction upon their targets. Unlike guerrilla forces, terrorist groups are less capable of overthrowing their adversaries’ governments than on inflicting discriminate or indiscriminate destruction that they hope will coerce them to change policy.

Generally speaking, academic definitions of terrorism tend to emphasize precision, but many scholars seem to recognize that some of their definitions may be too detailed for practical application. Schmid (2013) thinks that one way to get around the issue of defining terrorism is to rely, instead, on a definition with more consensus, such as the legal category of war crimes. Schmid may have a point, but even if we replace terrorism with war crime, I think we’re still going to run into a common problem: many non-academics (and some academics) are hesitant to view any attack, perpetrated by a self-identified Muslim, or justified by Quranic teachings, as terrorism. I’m not being cheeky; I genuinely think that the Islamic character of the Woolwich attack, however you want to describe it, makes people less likely to accept a terrorism narrative. Why? I think there are several possible overlapping explanations:

1. Islam is linked to ethnicity for many people (despite the fact that Muslims come from diverse ethnic backgrounds), and this relationship encourages us to view any criticism of Islam, or even the identification of an attack with Islam, as an implicit criticism of ethnic identity. Further complicating matters, far-right protest movements, like the English Defence League, often explicitly associate Islam with non-white peoples. Since no one wants to be identified as a racist, it’s quite easy to see how one would wish to avoid associating violence with Islam.

2. Individualistic bias, i.e., an emphasis on personal liability, responsibility, and accountability, consequently leaving out explanations which take into consideration collectives, such as religious groups (especially when a particular religion is commonly described as peaceful, e.g., only individuals are violent). Individualistic explanations, such as those that focus on mental illness or the perceived evil or criminality of an agent, underestimate the power of culture, and consequently, religion.

3. A preference for political explanations. Many people separate religion and politics, mistakenly believing that they occupy different spheres of influence. Religion, however, is political. A partial explanation for this separation of the religious and the political may be found in the conclusion of Andrew Fagan’s (2002) review essay, “Between God and Democracy”:

Appeals to the pristine authority of religion as the means for authorizing human relations are often motivated by a desire to rise above the interminable dispute and discord one finds in the secular domain of morality and politics. One does not have to be a Marxist, however, in order to identify the central flaw in any such attempt. Religion is political. Indeed, one might say that there really is no such thing as ‘religion,’ rather there are any number of separate and competing religious belief systems found throughout the world. Perry [author of The Idea of Human Rights: Four Inquiries], unfortunately, fails to address the fact that much human conflict continues to be perpetrated in the name of religion. Religion is a symptom, if not a cause, of much human conflict and not a remedy.

Closely associated with a preference for political explanations is a strong desire, by critics, to shift responsibility of the attack to the West: “Liberal opinion has spent too much of its time over the past two days ducking for cover and trying to throw deflections. Focus on the press’s reporting. Focus on the English Defence League lunatics. Focus on Tony Blair and his foreign policy.”

There are probably other explanations that I haven’t considered, but I think these are the big three. What are your thoughts?